The Future of AAC

AAC’s 20th anniversary is coming up in early 2023. Who would have imagined that a site we started for friends and family back in 2003 would evolve into what it is today.

And the cool thing is that, despite all that time, writing over a thousand articles and/or Online Book chapters, and answering most of 25,000 comments, I’m still as excited about creating content as I ever was—if I stopped having new ideas for articles today (not likely), it would be over a year before I ran dry.

Making AAC Better

Big anniversaries seem to promote analysis, and so Phyllis and I are thinking about new projects to improve AAC for the next 20 years…well, maybe not, I’m 70…let’s say five years.

Some of our ideas are to:

  • Offer an AAC app with the same content and features, but optimized for phones and tablets.
  • Do a complete rewrite and edit of the Online Books:
    • Consolidate multi-part chapters into single chapters.
    • Update in light of newer technology and methods.
    • General improvements—I have never written a thing that I, and/or editor-Phyllis, couldn’t make better, particularly after some time has elapsed.
  • Make the Online Books available on iBooks and Google Play as downloadable eBooks.
    • We already do this with our Norwegian Cruising Guide so have it figured out.
  • Add a micro-blog area for short posts about cool gear, boats and techniques that I come across, but that don’t warrant a full article.
  • Further improve the design, speed, and usability of the site.

Refocus on What Matters

But, much more importantly, we want to focus even more on in-depth actionable content that will be of use to you members for years to come.

More:

  • Chapters to fill gaps in the Online Books.
  • Diagrams and illustrations.
  • Checklists linked to in-depth explanatory chapters.

It’s Happening

We are already doing a lot of this:

  • We have finished the rigging checklist and associated articles.
  • I’m working on an electrical systems checklist, and most of the associated articles are already written.
  • I have spent weeks interviewing experts and industry insiders, as well as reading manuals, on lithium batteries so I can update our Electrical Systems Online Book with that technology.
  • It’s a rare day that passes without us making an improvement to an existing article. Might just be a few words changed, but often it’s a rewrite.
  • We are in the throes of installing a bunch of interesting gear to review on the AAC Test Boat, AKA our J/109.
  • We are winding up a frenzied refit of said boat—my fourth refit…must be nuts—during which we have learned a huge amount that we will share.

Some Things Don’t Change

All that said about current projects and future plans, there is one thing that has been the core of the site from day one that will never change:

Our focus on seamanship and voyaging offshore.

We are not, and will never become, a site full of breathless fan-boy articles about new technology just to get clicks and members.

Challenges to Solve

So that’s where we are now, and what we plan for the future. But we have two challenges to solve before we can move forward:

  • Time
  • Revenue

Actually, the two are interrelated, read on for how.

The Situation

  • AAC is a full-time job for me in the winter, and near that in the summer; and a part-time job for Phyllis year round.
  • I’m already doing all I can, so my time is a zero sum game: any new task I take on must be balanced by an existing task I drop.
  • Our member growth stalled at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • Growth picked up again a bit after Christmas but has tanked in recent weeks—AAC membership has always been closely correlated with stock market returns, as you would expect.
  • I’m not a big enough fool to try and forecast economic trends, but it does seem likely that we are entering a period of subdued growth, so growing membership is going to be difficult.
  • Member growth, or even just adding enough new members to balance attrition, is directly correlated to how often we publish.

To summarize, I’m feeling like a gerbil on a wheel:

  • We need to produce an article at least five times a month just to stay in one place.
  • General administration and maintenance of the site takes up at least as much time as content creation, because we have to do it all ourselves to keep costs contained.
  • We have less time and energy left over for the cool projects listed above than we would like.
  • There are often times I would like to spend a couple of weeks researching, writing, and illustrating a new in-depth article, but with the current model that’s out.

Another Problem

But wait, it gets worse (you were waiting for it).

We have an expenses problem, too:

  • The cost of the software and services we use to publish this site has skyrocketed over the last three years at a rate far higher than inflation.
  • Ever more rigorous privacy, tax reporting, and security requirements have forced us to pay ever more for the software and services to comply.

Price Increase?

So why not just put up the prices to cover these costs?

We just did, at the beginning of the May. Annual membership went from $24 to $36 a year.

Yup, that’s a 50% jump, but also the first in over three years, and only US$1/month.

And anyway, we were, and have been since 2013, when we started membership, relying on growth to make up for a silly-low price. That’s a bad strategy, particularly in the uncertain times we live in where reliable recurring revenue is required for AAC to survive.

And, anyway, even this increase won’t make our friend Andy Schell stop yelling at us that we don’t charge enough, as he has for years.

Not a Fix

But that’s not a fix because most of you members are on our legacy annually recurring plan at your original sign-up price of $18 (2013), $19.99 (2015), or $24 (2018), depending on when you signed up.

I guess we could unilaterally raise the price you pay on your next renewal—as most of the software and service vendors we use have done to us—but that does not feel right, since we would be welching on our long-promised policy not to.

And, anyway, it’s way better for AAC if you to stay at the older rate than leave because of an increase you didn’t get a say in.

Not a Good Situation

Add all this up and we are not just working harder for the same money, we are working harder for way less money after expenses, and that’s getting worse every month.

That does not feel good, particularly since our income from AAC has never been princely.

The Strategy

Phyllis and I have talked this over a bunch and the solution we came up with to this existential problem for AAC is:

  1. Stop fixating on the number of new members, or even the total number of members after attrition.
  2. Focus on making the content that really matters to loyal members as good as it can be, even if that means publishing less often.
  3. Ask those members who can to voluntarily pay more.

A Four-Part Plan

To those ends we are planning four steps:

1. Price Increase

  1. Put the price up substantially, even though we know this will reduce new signups. Done.
  2. Increase the price annually, so we don’t have to resort to a big percentage jump again.

2. Reward Automatic Renewal

Continue our policy of existing annual members automatically renewing at the price they signed up for:

  • Rewards loyal members.
  • Helps members who have, through no fault of their own, not come through the pandemic well.
  • Makes it more attractive for annual members to automatically renew so as not to lose their legacy rate.

3. Encourage Upgrading to The Current Price

Ask members who it works for to voluntarily change to the new price of US$36 / year to fund the improvements listed above.

4. Supporting Membership

Offer a new AAC Supporter Membership at US$120/year for those members who would like to support us at a higher level.

  • Includes an annual AAC Supporter group meeting with Phyllis and me, and possibly other benefits as we think of them.

Still a trivial amount for a member with, as many of us do, six-figure money in a boat.

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